Obama’s Speech to the School Kids- What I learned on the way to the end of my fears

At Booker T. Washington High School in downtown Dallas, they gave President Obama a standing ovation when they saw him enter on the large television screens. Booker T. is my daughter’s alma mater- it’s the performing arts high school. It’s Norah Jone’s alma mater, too. And something she is proud of, also.

So, when I saw the kids there jumping to their feet as the President appeared on-screen, I knew that the people to whom the president was aiming this speech were going to hear it. And as was evident from their comments, they heard it loudly and clearly in a way even most of us adult supporters of the president could not have heard it.

“He was speaking to me,” one small 9th grade boy said.

“He makes me want to get all As this year,” said another.

Many adults, especially- it appears- those of the Caucasian persuasion, were fearful of what the president would inculcate their children with today. I heard them breathing hard and sweating into the cameras pointed toward them as they screamed that the president had no right to tell their children what to think. Maybe they were afraid he would reveal the secret message of the fist-bump to curious fifth graders, or describe the joys of his parent’s interracial sex to shy high schoolers. Given the level of anger and suspicion many of these parents displayed, it is hard to even guess at what kind of jive they were afraid the president would brainwash their un-brainwashed children with.

And, despite the fact that even Laura Bush and Newt Gingrich endorsed the content of Obama’s speech, we know that in today’s America the facts don’t matter nearly as much as what a person wants to believe. If you want to believe Obama is a Muslim, there’s nothing anyone can say, show, or demonstrate that will dissuade you from that belief. In America today, among a certain crowd of fellow believers, you will even be applauded for hanging on to a belief despite the Truth that lies dying in the ditch nearby.

And there are still people waiting for the release of Michelle’s “Whitey” tape and for the Belgian Congo birth certificate of the president. And they’ll wait and they’ll wait because they KNOW they’re right and it doesn’t matter that that astronomy reveals the sun to be the center of the solar system, you silly fools, you can see that the sun rises and sets around the Earth, can’t you?

So here’s what I’ve learned today: All of that noise was preceding the speech was irrelevant. A whole lot of parents kept a whole lot of children out of school and away from the Internet and television today because they were afraid of something that bore no fearful meaning whatsover- liminally, subliminally, or otherwise. They were people being afraid, and that’s all. They would probably call it being protective, but they could have been protective at home, with some intelligent conversation around the dinner table tonight. They could have introduced their children to genuine critical thinking. I assume most of them are capable of that.

Since the noise was irrelevant, I should consider it so as well. AND SO SHOULD THE PRESIDENT! My argument with the president so far, indeed, my disappointment with the president so far is that he is spending too much time trying to be friends with people who don’t like him, did not and will never support him, and whose candidate in the last election was convincingly defeated.

President Obama: those of us who voted for you voted for change, significant change to happen. We wanted our country out of the twin sinkholes of Iraq and Afghanistan that we were lied into. We want war criminals tried, if that is what a grand jury deems them to be. We want sexual preference among adults to not be a factor at all in a person’s enjoyment of their full civil rights. Those are the changes we voted for above and beyond the need this country had for a president who was smart and who didn’t look like every president before and who was running with a vice-presidential candidate who didn’t scare the living socks off of us as we imagined him possibly becoming president. That’s what we voted for, Obama, not how many friends you could make among the people who had gotten us into the military and economic quagmire we are in now.

So, while many many, many of my friends are Republican, most of whom I would take a bullet for (and they know it), I must tell them that I will not listen to their political views with any more fear. Theirr politics are coming to an end. The world can’t be the way it was in the 50’s; they’ve spent us into a hell hole of unimaginable depth, and while they can try to blame the other party for that, the statistics of Reagan, Bush, and Bush tell another story. Unfortunately, I voted right there beside them until 2006, when I saw the light. It’s not a bright light- Pelosi and Reid are both standing in it after all- but it is a whole lot brighter than the dim fluorescents pirated out of Enron’s headquarters.

And I know this: that the loudest among you old-timers- those who fussed the most about Obama’s Svengali grip on the minds of school kids, some you made asses of yourselves. And your kids saw you doing it. And while they no doubt still love you, they have seen you be wrong, over-reactive, maybe even goofy. Statistics show that that has happened a lot recently. During the 80s and 90s you preached and preached and preached about the takeover of schools and government by those with a gay agenda. You made bogeymen out of young men dying of AIDS so that you wouldn’t have to confront the sympathetic response you deeply felt toward them. (We all know it is easier to fear and hate than it is to give in to love, especially if that love- holy cow!- might be misconstrued as fag love!).

The point is, you painted the homosexual community into something it wasn’t. At all. Your kids went to college, got jobs, and moved into apartments near and with these men and women. They even became friends with them! They found out that you had been wrong about them, and that some of you and some of your preachers had been lying about them to you. They even found out that there seems to be a direct relationship between the loud rantings of an anti-gay protester and his desire to passionately kiss the object of his fury!

So you lost more young people in your loud and silly protests over this speech today.

Good.

And knowing those things, I won’t be so upset the next time. Your numbers are decreasing even as the spittle from your radio and television leaders is increasing. Even as the crazed rantings of Beck and Limbaugh and Hannity grow louder, more and more young people are hearing them, and the demographic slice of their advertising pie grows older by the day.

(Thank you again, young people of Booker T. Washington High School, Dallas, Texas. I’m giving you my own private standing ovation right now!)

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Death? Not me! (part 5 of a series)

“[The] philosophy of exemptionalism, which supposes that the special status on Earth of humanity lifts us above the laws of Nature. Exemptionalism takes one or the other of two forms. The first.. is secular: don’t change course now, human genius will provide. The second is religious: don’t change course now, we are in the hands of God, or the gods, Earth’s karma, whatever.” (E.O.Wilson, Creation- An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, W.W.Norton & Co., 2006, p.83)

The philosophy of exemptionalism is an easy one to adopt as one’s personal worldview; in fact, we’re naturals at it! Here it is, stated in its most elementary form:

“All that bad stuff that will happen to you won’t happen to me- I’m special.”

This a belief that seems in history to just as easily evolve into a real psychosis of specialness. There are those persons who believe they can fly. And people on the sidewalk below them discover they how wrong, how not-special, they really were. There are those persons who believe they have been exempted from the side effects of tobacco, alcohol, or general slovenly living. Most of them discover by the age of 55 or so that “tomorrow” was not the best time to have waited to change their ways. And whole empires have thought of themselves as eternal when in fact, as the Holy Roman Empire discovered, they were just one angry, marauding hoard away from being a mere collection of sovereign nation-states.

And many of us harbor that deeply held and precious, but absolutely stone cold crazy belief that we will not die because there is technology just on the horizon that will save us, or a medicine that will cleanse our bodies of 40 years of smoking, or because our own ability to get out of the way of explosions, highway accidents, and gunfire. (“I never thought such a thing could happen to me!” the lucky ones say.”Those things aren’t supposed to happen in our neighborhood,” the formerly exempted ones proclaim.)

Or (we say) that Death, while important, doesn’t really matter because eternal life, with Jesus or with forty grape-laden virgins or any of a number of other scenarios based on one’s doctrinal beliefs subscribed to while one was still alive and of sound mind and body, will be the order of eternity. We SAY that, but then we pour fortunes into squeezing an extra couple months, a year, or a few years out of an increasingly painful, weakened, or dependent life.

In both ways of approaching Death (or not approaching it), fear is the prime mover. It is the fear of meaninglessness, nothingness- the bottom line fear that maybe our professions of faith are only words we have said, or that maybe technology or pharmacology might be too late for us. (“Damn the FDA!”) We don’t want the days and years to add up to a whiff of smoke or the memory of the last friend or relative left standing. So we are afraid, living our lives in a reserved but ever-present dread of the end.
The profession of faith can dull the sharp edges of contemplated death, but- for whatever reason(s)- the ‘sting’ is still present.

I think there are superficial reasons why that is so; and some deep reasons why that is so. And there are even deeper reasons that every human being on Earth shares. All of the various reasons are interesting (I think) and need to be talked about. The deepest reasons, however, are profound and- once we understand how we share them with all human beings- they can serve as areas of new empathetic relationships among various human groups from whom we might otherwise feel separated. They can further help us understand why we want to shoot over the heads of those who others are telling us to call the Enemy. And they can help understand what it is about us, and the Other, that truly is special.

Death’s War of Words


“Without the creation of abstract images of the enemy, and without the depersonalization of the enemy during training, battle would become impossible to sustain. But if the abstract image is overdrawn or depersonalization is stretched into hatred, the restraints on human behavior in war are easily swept aside. If, on the other hand, men reflect too deeply upon the enemy’s common humanity, then they risk being unable to proceed with the task whose aims may be eminently just and legitimate.”
(Richard Holmes, Acts of War, quoted by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, in his book, On Killing)

Grossman’s book is about the military history of killing the enemy. And his conclusions are fascinating: getting the enemy killed has not been an historically easy thing to do! Soldiers don’t want to kill other soldiers and many, many of them- based on statistics and evidence gathered from all of America’s wars- have shot over the heads of enemies, or not at all.

Empathy is something we, for many years, thought we learned about in civic class or Sunday School. It may have been enhanced in those settings, but it turns out that our brains are wired for empathy- the million year evolution of our species demanded that we cooperate with each other in staying alive. Mirror neurons in our brains allow us to read, to an important extent, the minds and feelings of others. We can then match our actions to theirs, either consciously or, more often, unconsciously. It’s silly and obvious to say but, under normal circumstances, we know what the person near us (sitting beside us, or in our gunsights), we know how that person feels about their own death. We read it in their face and in their body language in exactly the same way, it turns out, that we feel it in our own body. Thus, it is very hard to pull a trigger. And thus, military trainers needed to do something about that.

And what was successfully taught beginning, Grossman documents, in the early stages of the Vietnam War, was a purposeful, dedicated de-humanizing of the enemy. Slopes, Gooks, and other such words were not only used (words like that have always been used in war), but they were institutionalized during the soldiers’ training! It makes it not so hard, at the time, to kill an old Gook, even one that appears harmless. (Those Gooks are up to no good! They’re not like us! They don’t have feelings like we do! They speak mumbo-jumbo. There are too many of them. They’d kill us if they had the chance! Etc., etc., etc.)

The empathy we feel toward another person that prevents us from killing them, is the same empathy that causes us to share food with a stranger who’s hungry, or to support orphanages, etc. We understand, without jabbering about it, that Death is also a big deal to the Other. The only way we can get past that empathy, the military has shown us, is to artificially re-shape the Other into another, lesser image.

And I’m wondering (which is the point of this off-the-path excursion into war) I’m wondering if we haven’t been encouraged by a whole line of people through history to artificially re-shape and re-make our ideas of Death into something other than what they naturally are. Have we been coerced perhaps into fearing Death in ways most of the world’s inhabitants historically have not? Have we become too eager to fight Death without knowing how or when to stop “raging against the dying of the light” as Dylan Thomas wrote?

I wonder if it might be possible to be able to see our present reality from a slightly different angle? Maybe in the final years we should have a greater opportunity to tend, rather than to mend; to move toward hospice rather than the hospital. It sounds cruel what I’m saying, doesn’t it? But I’m saying that these gentle suggestions of mine have made to sound cruel. We have, so many of us, been trained to be good soldiers in the economic battles, right to the end.

The Death of Death!!

“The following day, no one died. This fact, being absolutely contrary to life’s rules, provoked enormous and, in the circumstances, perfectly justifiable anxiety in people’s minds, for we have only to consider that in the entire forty volumes of universal history there is no mention, not even one exemplary case, of such phenomenon ever having occurred, for a whole day to go by, with its generous allowance of twenty-four hours, diurnal and nocturnal, without one death from an illness, a fatal fall, or a successful suicide, not one, not a single one.” (Jose Saramago, Death With Interruptions, Harcourt, 2008, p.1)

In Saramago’s most recent novel, everyone in a particular small European country inexplicably stops dying. The Queen mother, on her deathbed, stays there. Healthy persons who are injured or become ill go to hospitals and stay there, too. Life goes on the way it always has, until it is time to die.

Chaos follows. Nursing homes and hospitals overflow, life insurance companies grow wealthy, while health insurance and pension funds and the funeral industry go broke. A calamity overtakes the church, and the hierarchy from the pope on down, begin praying that God return death as a fact of life! Death- the fear of it, the theological threats able to be made because of it- had become the primary sustenance of this country’s church and nobody’s dying meant no one was bothering with church anymore!

Saramago is one of the world’s living literary treasures- he sees the world differently than most people; he sees beyond the superficialities of life and into the real and true underpinnings that define the ‘stuff’ of life. And he doesn’t hesitate to indict us as a society for our peculiarities and vagaries, even though he does it with humor, even gently. Death he says, is a big deal- of course! But we also tend to make it into an even bigger deal for financial, religious, and other societal reasons!

The funeral industry, the entire insurance industry, and (Saramago would say) the church industry- all are built upon the foundations of death’s inevitability. Those “industries” depend on death (again, Saramago says). Therefore, death in a modern sense gets dressed up in ways death was never dressed up in before. Jessica Mitford’s 1963 book An American Way of Death, was an expose of what she named the “death-care industry” in America: the funeral business. Hers was an indictment not only of high pressure sales techniques being used at the time, and of genuinely underhanded marketing, but of the industry’s simply making of a much, much bigger deal about funerals than any other country in history had done for persons other than royalty. What we had come to think of as normal- funeral homes, embalming, sealed and expensive caskets, and flowers- Mitford exposed as purely American ideas, successfully sold! (In the later, revised edition of her book, she added a chapter on the frequent collusion of funeral homes with local pastors: “Nosy Clergy” the chapter was called.)

Death had become- and largely remains- Death as a series of exclamation points!!!!! And that emphasis obscures the true nature of Death’s marking the end of a life, the end of a period. The Death of a body need not be a disruptive, climactic extravaganza. The death of a body is the cessation of breath, stillness, and the preparation of those nearby, for burial. The remembrance of the soul, the person, the consciousness which gave the body animation and distinction- that remembrance can be, should be acknowledged and honored. That remembrance is a very real psychologically and emotionally necessary period at the finish of a time. But it is not easy to do. There are decisions to be made, people to call, flowers to be ordered- Did anyone call the florist? There are clothes to be chosen and- one limousine or two? How many songs, which songs, who should pray, and- oh my god- do we go with ebony, bronze, or walnut, or- gross!- plywood? Do you have the checkbook with you? Open? Open? What, I have a choice?

Such is life, but c’est l’muert, too! We need respect and quiet, and we need to be able to note the passing of time without trying to stop the passage of time. We need to remember, and keep walking. Others have always done it that way, and we used to. We’ll be looking at some ancestral memories of those times soon.

Death, and the Community of Life

“Each individual life-form has its own historical appearance, a moment when it must assert its identity, fulfill its role, and then give way to other individuals in the ever-renewing processes of the phenomenol world..

“In our Western tradition, this passing of our own being is experienced as something to be avoided absolutely. Because we are so sensitive to any personal affliction, because we avoid any threats to our personal existence, we dedicate ourselves to individual survival above all else. In the process of extending our own lives, we imperil the community of life systems on the planet. This leads eventually to failure in fulfilling our own proper role within the larger purposes of the universe.” (Thomas Berry, Evening Thoughts, Sierra Club Books, 2006, p.35)

Berry speaks as a one-time priest who went on to become an environmental thinker and philosopher. He died this past June at the age of 94. He spoke and wrote of Creation not in divine terms, but in holy terms. To his thinking, the processes of the Universe and of the Earth were sacred- to be in awe of, and to respect and protect. We do not stand ‘over’ those processes: we are not in charge of them any more than we were responsible for setting them into motion. Yet we (and I’m speaking here of humans) insert ourselves into those processes again and again in an effort to..make them better?..patent them? ..demonstrate to God how it should be done?

We dam rivers because we decide where to build cities. We drive cars because we’ve to get ‘there’ more quickly, we splice the genes of grain to yield more nutrition grown per acre, we build 4000 sq.ft. houses because the neighbors have a 3500 sq.ft. home, we fill lakes with antibiotics to kill off the algae, viri, and other biotics we’ve caused, for other former reasons, to grow there, and we do whatever it takes to live as long as possible. Or, in some cases, exist as long as possible. And then, in these and all things, we ask the God of our choosing and the government of our location to bless us: “Take care of us iun the manner to which we’ve made ourselves accustomed!”

By 2011, there will be seven (7) billion people on Earth. I once heard a conservative radio commentator point out that the entire population of the earth could stand in state of Oregon, and that each person would have something like 100 sq.ft. on which to live. He was pointing this out in order to pooh-pooh the arguments of what he called ‘over-population alarmists.’ What he said about living space is, indeed, true. But what he didn’t say is also true: he didn’t address the need and locale of arable land, potable water, storage and transportation of food and water, septic tanks, and the ease with which every virus, germ, and flea-laden brown rat could wreak havoc! Building supplies, climate control, and fuel are easy to ignore during the moments one is broadcasting vitriol-disguised-as-humor to a radio audience. But, in the eastern desert of Oregon, occasional shade will be necessary. Someone- picky, picky, picky- might need new shoes. And certainly there will be a need for shovels- lots them!

But, our broadcaster has helped a significant number of people again turn a blind eye- at least for a little while- to the inevitable problem of too many people! It is part of the blindness, or perhaps a result of the blindness, with which we have almost all turned toward Sister Death. We don’t like Death, so we postpone it as long as possible. We spend as much money in the last weeks of our lives on medicines and medical procedures as we have previously spent in the first 70, 80, 90 years!

We are choosing and able to live longer and longer lives. Which is nice on one hand for many of us; but for many others of us, the too-old age diseases of cancer and Alzheimer’s are like those hooks reaching out from behind the curtains to drag us reluctantly off the stage we thought was ours forever.
We are afraid of dying and we are institutionally committed to squeezing as much time from eternity for ourselves as possible. Quantity trumps quality for many at the end stages of life. We call the fights against cancer, for instance, courageous- and some of them are, absolutely! But there are also fights being fought against various diseases in which the winner (if we must use such a word) is easily predictable. And the battles in those cases are not born of courage so much as they are of being afraid of what is inevitable.

In the meantime, the sheer numbers of human beings increases. The fact that fewer and fewer of them are dying on the evolutionary and/or God-imaged timetables that thousands of generations before us have died on, causes that human population to be even larger than it would be through improved birthing methods and better nutrition. We are, by our numbers and our need for calories, crowding out others who are also in desperate need of the Earth’s surface!

But, (I ask, in Mr. Berry’s words) are we compelled to regard the “passing of our own being .. as something to be avoided absolutely” ? Must we continue to stiff arm our Sister when she insists on a conversation, then fighting her for the seat beside us she will, absolutely will, soon be sitting in? Or should we talk about it, with each other at first, with genuine thinkers within our various faith traditions, and with the thinkers in other faith traditions? I think we should, because we must. I don’t want to be pushed out of the way by the younger world surging behind me. I have earned no special situational graces by virtue of having lived longer than 90% of all humans who have ever lived. I want to be accommodating and gracious myself. I want, when my time is come, to not fight selfishly, but to take the final steps expectantly and hopefully, for those many generations of all other life systems I am preceding.

Sister Death


We praise You, Lord, for Sister Death,
from whom no one living can escape.
Woe to those who die in their sins!
Blessed are those that She finds doing Your Will.
No second death can do them harm.

We praise and bless You, Lord,
and give You thanks, and serve You in all humility.

(from Canticle of the Sun, by St. Francis of Assisi)

I think about Death, because I think deeply (as deeply as I can) about Life. It is in honor of Life, in a very real way, that I pay homage to Death by wondering, thinking, studying, talking about and now writing about Death. Sister Death, St. Francis called it, in perhaps the most comfortable evocation of its nearness and familiarity. And Sister Death I will often call it as well, with a nod of gratitude toward Francis and an opening of the door to my- our- oft neglected (or shunned) sibling.

In writing about Sister Death, I am not unaware that some will leave this blog, perhaps never to return.
It is easy in a culture which is afraid of Death- and that’s what we are, largely- to regard talk about it as a talisman or as a conduit. “I don’t want to think about it,” he/she/we says because thinking about means facing its inevitabilities, its finalities, and all of its inherent Mystery, if only for a few moments. The trouble is, like a Sister, once Death has been acknowledged, it cannot be unacknowledged. Poking at the dead fly on the windowsill as a toddler, is the first of a lifetime of questions about the Sister’s nature, followed by greater questions about her immanence, and then even greater wonderings about her permanence.

Death is not a crazy Sister, though, that we can keep locked in the basement no matter how much we may want to! It’s appearance, more frequent in some locales and personal decades than others, is a relentless reminder that we do not live in a static universe. We are always in the midst of change, in the throes of Creation, and caught in the chaos of many dimensions . The deaths of solar systems play out over light years while the deaths of mayflies begin and end in a single day, making the evidence of our existential similarities to either, difficult to observe. Culturally, we can ignore the Sun’s cataclysmic metamorphosis into a cold, ashen meteor and laugh nervously at the mayfly’s short and fragile grasp of life. And we can institutionally further close our eyes and minds to Death’s omnipresence by grasping at the testimonial straws offered by hustlers on the sanctuary circuit: “I died on the operating table and saw the third heaven!.” (more- much more- about that religious vocation in a later article.)

In short, I want to to dance with Death. But I want to do it here, in digital space- not at the edge of a canyon or in high stakes game of Russian Roulette! By exploring here, I am looking down in the dark basement myself, where we know our Sister stirs. We have relegated her there, most of the time, and I think it has been to our detriment. We’ve missed her songs; we’re missing her symphony. No matter how darkly we have been taught to hang the curtains around Death and regardless of how sonorous the basso-profundo chords are being played as we allow Death to stand in the Light of our Inquiry, we must know Death better. We must. In honesty, I tell you that I feel the desire already to retreat, to chicken-shit shut this door and go play somewhere else. But I think- I suspect and I am almost sure- that we are missing a great deal about Life by treating Death in this way. I think we must put our hand out and hold Sister’s hand in ours as we look her in the face and see the reflection of ourselves in her eyes. And then, because she will embrace us in her everlasting love one day, perhaps we can come to feel comfortable enough to allow her to sit closer, talk more often, and even- from time to time- put our arm around her shoulders and feel her heart beat with our own.

Each day, I will be building my thoughts and also deconstructing some of them, with the help of some great writers and thinkers who have challenged me. There are others reasons I write about this subject, too, and I will be sharing those as well.

If I die before I wake.. (you know the rest..)